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Lions vs. Panthers recap: Detroit’s bubble players finish strong in 26-17 win

The Detroit Lions’ depth rebounded in a big way against the Carolina Panthers to finish the 2023 preseason strong.

NFL: Preseason-Detroit Lions at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After last week’s preseason flub against the Jacksonville Jaguars, there were some vocal concerns about the Detroit Lions’ depth. But in the preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers on Friday night, Detroit’s reserve players—many fighting for the team’s final roster spots—stepped up to the occasion.

Though the Panthers jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead, opting to play their starters while the Lions benched theirs, Detroit quickly fought their way back to a 20-10 lead at halftime. The Lions were led by strong rebound performances from the second-team offensive line, backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and a couple big plays from their reserve defensive backs—in particular, Khalil Dorsey, Chase Lucas, and Steven Gilmore.

With third and fourth string players littering the field in the second half, the Lions nearly relinquished the lead, but Gilmore sealed the game late with a pick-six. Detroit has to come away from this game feeling better than they did last week

Here’s a look at how the entire game went down, including highlights of the biggest plays.

First quarter

The Panthers got the ball first, led by the first stringers and rookie quarterback Bryce Young. Early in the drive, Young was able to elude pass rushers with his legs, helping Carolina move into Lions territory.

Just as it looked like the Lions had forced three straight incompletions to get off the field, Starling Thomas V was tagged for a pass interference, setting up the Panthers in the red zone. But Detroit would hold strong after James Houston and Romeo Okwara split a sack, helping force a short field goal. 3-0 Panthers.

For the first time this preseason, cornerback Khalil Dorsey lined up to return the kickoff and he made a big impact with this impressive 62-yard return.

But after a first-down holding penalty on James Mitchell, the Lions—with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm—quickly went three-and-out. The good field position afforded the Lions an ability to get three, but Riley Patterson’s 53-yard attempt hit the crossbar and bounced short.

Young and the Panthers first-team offense remained in the game with the good field position. He immediately connected with Adam Thielen for 21 yards with Steven Gilmore a few steps behind.

After another third-down conversion by Young scramble, the rookie quarterback again converted on third down by going back to Thielen for an 18-yard touchdown. 10-0 Panthers

Rookie receiver Antoine Green took the ensuing kickoff for a nice 32-yard gain, and that’s where Bridgewater would take over for his second series. A nice play-action to undrafted rookie Chase Cota quickly got the Lions into Panthers territory for a 20-yard gain. Detroit was facing a third-and-3 as the game turned over to the second quarter.

Second quarter

Craig Reynolds picked up the first down on the ground and moved Detroit inside the 20-yard line. A couple plays later, Reynolds bounced a run outside for 11 yards and a first-and-goal situation. On third-and-goal, the Lions ran Reynolds right up the gut for a 5-yard touchdown. 10-7 Panthers.

Andy Dalton took over for the Panthers’ third drive, and promptly went three and out after failing to convert a third-and-short.

Detroit took over, and Bridgewater continued to put together a much more solid day than last week’s preseason game. He found Dylan Drummond for 20 yards which moved Detroit into Panthers territory. Facing a third-and-6, Bridgewater uncorked a deep shot to Cota. While Cota couldn’t come down with it, the Panthers were rightfully called for a pass interference penalty, and the Lions moved down to the 8-yard line. Unfortunately, Detroit couldn’t punch it in after Coda dropped a would-be touchdown that was slightly behind him. Patterson knocked it in from 25 to tie the game at 10-10.

Carolina would only pick up a single first down after a strong drive from Levi Onwuzurike (tackle for loss, QB hit) and James Houston (drew a holding penalty). A nice punt set the Lions up on their own 7-yard line. Drummond helped the Lions get out of their own end zone with a nice diving catch on third-and-4. But a pass behind Cota on third-and-2 fell incomplete and the Lions punted right back to Carolina.

The Panthers turned to their two-minute drill, and Dalton slowly worked his way downfield. But just as it looked like the Panthers were going to take back the lead, Chase Lucas made this impressive diving interception.

With just 51 seconds left, the Lions offense attempted to take the lead before halftime, and indeed they did. Bridgewater laid a nice ball to rookie receiver Antoine Green for a 70-yard strike. 17-10 Lions.

The Lions weren’t done adding to the score, as Dorsey immediately forced a fumble as Carolina was perhaps just running out the clock.

While the Lions couldn’t come away with six, Patterson did add another three (from 27 yards out), giving the Lions a 20-10 lead at halftime.

Third quarter

Nate Sudfeld took over for the Lions offense, but unfortunately, he was injured on just his sixth play from scrimmage. After throwing the ball away on third down, Sudfeld collided with a Panthers player and fell to the ground. He walked off the field very gingerly.

The teams traded a few punts from there, with Lions fourth-string quarterback Adrian Martinez taking over for Sudfeld.

Panthers quarterback Matt Corral finally broke the offensive drought. A 27-yard scramble put Carolina deep into Detroit territory. Spencer Brown punched it in from 4 yards to make it a one-score game. 20-17 Lions.

Martinez put together a nice drive on his second attempt. First, scrambling on a third-and-2 for a pickup with his feet. Then he found Cota for 16 yards and into Panthers territory. But a high snap lost 5 critical yards, forcing the Lions into a third-and-11 as we moved into the fourth quarter.

Fourth quarter

Martinez couldn’t connect with Maurice Alexander, who slowed his route, throwing off the timing of the play. Stuck in no-man’s land, the Lions tried to get the Panthers to jump offsides on fourth down, but after they stayed disciplined, Detroit punted.

After the teams traded three-and-outs, the Panthers offense was on the move. But a penalty set them back and a nice pass breakup by Lions cornerback Colby Richardson ended the drive.

The teams again traded three-and-outs, thanks to Houston picking up another sack. Yes, Houston was still playing into the fourth quarter, but that was partially by necessity, as Julian Okwara suffered an injury in the third quarter.

Eventually, it was Gilmore who put the game on ice with this impressive pick-six. But, notably, Patterson missed the extra point—his second miss of the night. 26-17 Lions.

The preseason is over, which means it’s time to BRING ON KANSAS CITY!

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